Did Jane Austen pull it off? It’s a close enough call that those seemingly implausible coincidences that make the story work do trouble some readers of her novels. In some ways, it feels a bit like she cheated, waving her authorial wand to create the literary equivalent of divine intervention. These things typically fall into one of two broad categories: Convenient Connections and Perfect Timing.
Authors do, of course, have artistic license to play around with these things, but they do so at some peril. When it’s overdone, there is the potential for readers to resist — threatening the suspension of disbelief and casting suspicion on the entire story. The plots in Austen’s novels are tight, but they do rely on the reader accepting some rather unlikely events unfolding with breathtaking precision.
Consider these examples. In Pride and Prejudice, what are the odds that Mr. Bennet’s heir would just happen to be serving under the patronage of Mr. Darcy’s aunt? What about Mrs. Gardiner’s youth having been spent in a village so near to Pemberley? How about Darcy’s nemesis, Mr. Wickham, just happening to join the militia regiment quartered in Meryton? Austen moves her players around like pawns on a chessboard. In what I consider the most spectacular and beloved moment of perfect timing in Austen’s novels, Mr. Darcy just happens to arrive at Pemberley unexpectedly, while Elizabeth just happens to be standing twenty yards away from where he enters on the road.
Persuasion starts off with the big bang of connection coincidences. Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot is forced to retrench and just happens to lease Kellynch Hall to Captain Wentworth’s sister’s husband without realizing that they are related to the very man Anne had been persuaded against years before. There is also an otherwise insignificant character of Mrs. Smith, whom Anne met at school. Mrs. Smith, through her husband, has also been closely acquainted with the heir apparent of Kellynch, one Mr. William Elliot. Thanks in large part to gossip reaching the ears of her landlady’s sister Nurse Rooke; Mrs. Smith is able to (somewhat belatedly and obscurely) inform Anne about the darker side of Mr. Elliot’s character.
Sense and Sensibility brings us Miss Lucy Steele. She is the linchpin of Elinor’s story, and her dual connections to the Dashwoods are strange and surprising. Not only is she secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars, but also happens to be related to Mrs. Jennings, which gets her invited to Barton Cottage where she proceeds to confide the secret that will torment Elinor through most of the story.
There are certainly more examples, but I do have a point to make, which is that these kinds of things do happen, and the coincidences aren’t all as far-fetched as they may seem. Some have referred to this as “The small-world phenomena.” A few examples from my own experience:
When I first met my husband, our interaction was brief, but I was smitten. So much so that I carried on at length about him to a friend who was quick to point out that we hadn’t even been on a date and that I knew very little about him. The next day, I visited my friend’s church, which was twelve miles away from where I lived. Once we took our seats in the chapel, who should walk in and park his handsome self next to me on the pew? It was Adam—the very man I had shamelessly enthused about the night before. I must have looked something like a sitcom character elbowing my friend on the left to get her to peek surreptitiously at the dude on my right whilst discreetly (I hoped) signaling her that that was HIM. It turns out that he was also visiting the same church out of hundreds in the city that day with a co-worker. That fated “coincidence” changed the course of my life, but if I wrote it as the “cute meet” in a romance novel, it would seem contrived.
My daughter was on a church mission, serving in Minsk, Belarus. They didn’t go to Moscow for meetings frequently, but on the rare occasions when they did, they would take advantage of the opportunity to sightsee. She was doing just that in Red Square when there was a moment of recognition and delight as she encountered an acquaintance who was in Russia to teach English. She was in a large tourist attraction in an enormous city over 5,000 miles from home and happened to run into someone she knew. Crazy, huh?
When I think about it, those coincidences in Austen’s novels aren’t such a stretch after all. I think she pulled it off masterfully. What do you think? What is your favorite literary (or real-life) coincidence?